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Cape Feared: First four movies

24 January 2013 by Rob Daniel

Batman Begins was not the first reinvention of the caped crusader - in fact, he's been reinvented more times than David Bowie. Rob Daniel looks at the bat's previous outings...

Batman - Michael Keaton takes aimBatmanBURTON'S BAT

A long, dark night has fallen since the day-glo campery of Batman's first big screen appearance in 1966. 

It was almost a quarter of a century before the irony of Adam West's paunch-over-utility-belt performance gave way to Burton's 1989 gothic vision.

And sixteen years later - during which the potency of the dynamic duo was diluted by the misjudged embarrassment Batman & Robin - Christopher Nolan's psychologically skewed Batman Begins made the legend darker still. 

No previous Batman movie betters Nolan’s approach, but without these films there would have been no opportunity to present the ultimate caped crusader screen outing.

The character of Batman was fifty years old when Tim Burton’s darker, more brooding vision was released into cinemas.

Easy to forget the anticipation for 1989's movie matched expectations for Nolan’s The Dark Knight.  As a certain rotund director says in An Evening with Kevin Smith, "People were cutting the bat logo into their heads. It was the summer of the bat and if you were a Batman fan it was pretty hot".

Batman - Jack NicholsonBatman - Jack NicholsonAnd excitement over Heath Ledger’s Joker echoes that felt for Jack Nicholson’s sub-orbital hop of a performance; the look, the one-liners, the unease that this was just pantomime all made for a memorable monster that looked like a Bat-villain circa 1966, but had the edge (the Joker kills casually thoughout the movie) that made him a memorable foe.

Problem was the Joker’s biggest crime was stealing Batman’s movie from under his nose: Burton has always been attracted to the freakish and while his film touched upon Bruce Wayne’s mental hiccups, the Joker’s scenes contain the real fizz (the director also handed over action duties to 2nd unit director Peter MacDonald, who helmed the underrated Rambo III).

But, Burton’s choice of Michael Keaton for Batman proved an action man wasn’t required for the role (every 80s’ muscleman was considered), and with Batman’s black armoured suit, the Joker’s homicidal glee, plus Anton Furst’s ‘Metropolis meets Edgar Allan Poe’ Gotham City sets, proved the Dark Knight could seriously rise above camp.

The first two Batman movies share similarities with Nolan’s: both Batman and Batman Begins re-invented the character out of a camp dead-end, and both first films inspired sequels that pushed the envelope of how dark a summer tentpole movie could be. 

The Dark Knight’s trailers promise War on Terror allegories, grown-up storytelling, and a sense of menace and danger rarely seen in mega-budget A-pictures.  Cast your mind back to 1992 and the original Batman Returns trailer that boasted the eponymous superhero battling Michelle Pfeiffer’s astonishing S&M Catwoman on Gotham's rooftops, Danny DeVito’s penguin army launching missiles into the city and more sexual frisson than blushing parents knew how to deal with.

And while Burton’s Gotham is a carnival freakshow populated by painted monsters and citizens decked out in noir clothing, the success of Batman and Batman Returns allowed for Batman: The Animated Series,  expanding Bruce Wayne's world and directly feeding into Nolan’s take on the legend.


 CAMPED OUT

Batman & Robin - Unholy trinity!Batman & Robin - Unholy trinity!Critic Kim Newman wrote that Batman’s real arch-enemy was "the Schumacher", and director Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever and particularly Batman & Robin undid all Burton's good work, leaving it to the cartoon series and comics to keep Batman real (dark).

Batman Forever replaced Michael Keaton with the equally interesting Val Kilmer, but reduced everyone to second-fiddle status for Jim Carrey’s Riddler, sacrificing Burton’s atmosphere and a good villain (Two-Face, played purple and plastic by a slumming Tommy Lee Jones) for a look and feel that replicated Carrey’s breakthrough smash The Mask.

But it worked: Batman Forever clocked in with a worldwide take $70m higher than Batman Returns and a McDonald’s tie-in, greenlighting the "you know, for kids" Batman & Robin.

Schumacher believed with Batman & Robin he made the worst film of all time, only to have Woody Allen inform him that would have been an achievement, and he had only made a mediocre movie.

Time is proving Schumacher right: comparing Batman & Robin to Batman Begins, it is near unbelievable the films are in any way related.

 A hymn to the 60s TV show, Batman & Robin is an eye-straining headache of neon, interminable action sequences and embarrassed performances (when Arnie does the best thesping you know there is trouble), all wrapped up in exactly the same script as Batman Forever – hopefully writer Akiva Goldsman had a pang of guilt when cashing the second cheque.

But, no Batman & Robin, no Batman Begins. The backlash against the fourth Batmovie (with Schumacher joining in) made Warner Bros think twice about the Dark Knight's future, even briefly offering the Batman reboot gig to Requiem for a Dream gloom-meister Darren Aronofsky.

When The Dark Knight is released rediscover Burton’s movies on their TV showings, seek out that animated series, and banish those Schumacher efforts to Arkham Asylum.

Rob Daniel